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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 20, May 7, 2011

Vignettes from Tagore

Saturday 14 May 2011

On the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, we present here some vignettes from his writings providing an insight to his wandering spirit. These vignettes appeared in Mainstream (May 4, 1963).

I was one day summoned upstairs to my father. How would I like to go with him to the Himalayas, I was asked. Away from the Bengal Academy and off to the Himalayas?

Our first halt was to be for a few days at Bolpur. Satya had been there a short time before with his parents. No self-respecting nineteenth-century infant would have credited the account of his travels which he gave us on his return. But we were different, and had had no opportunity of learning to determine the line between the possible and the impossible. Our Mahabharata and Ramayana gave us no clue to it. Nor had we then any children’s illustrated books to guide us in the way a child should go. All the hard-and-fast laws which govern the world we learnt by knocking up against them.

Satya had told us that, unless one was very very expert, getting into a railway carriage was a terribly dangerous affair—the least slip, and it was all up. Then, again, a fellow had to hold on to his seat with all his might, otherwise the jolt at starting was so tremendous there was no telling where one would get thrown off to. So when we got to the railway station I was all a-quiver. So easily did we get into our compartment, however, that I felt sure the worst was yet to come. And when, at length, we made an absurdly smooth start, without any semblance of adventure, I felt woefully disappointed.

The train sped on; the broad fields with their blue-green border trees, and the villages nestling in their shade flew past in a stream of pictures which melted away like a flood of mirages. It was evening when we reached Bolpur. As I got into the palanquin I closed my eyes. I wanted to preserve the whole of the wonderful vision to be unfolded before my waking eyes in the morning light. The freshness of the experience would be spoilt, I feared, by incomplete glimpses caught in the vagueness of the dusk...

WE stayed about a month in Amritsar, and, towards the middle of April, started for the Dalhousie Hills. The last few days in Amritsar seemed as if they would never pass, the call of the Himalayas was so strong upon me.

The terraced hill-sides, as we went up in jhampan, were all aflame with the beauty of the flowering spring crops. Every morning we would make a start after our bread and milk, and before sunset take shelter for the night in the next staging hungalow. My eyes had no rest the livelong day, so great was my fear lest anything should escape them. Wherever, at a turn of the road into a gorge, the great forest trees were found clustering closer, and from underneath their shade a waterfall trickling out, like a little daughter of the hermitage playing at the feet of hoary sages wrapt in meditation, babbling its way over the black moss-covered rocks, there the jhampan bearers would put down their burden, and take a rest. Why, oh why, had we to leave such spots behind, cried my thirsting heart, why could we not stay on there for ever?

IN my early youth I had conceived a fancy to journey along the Grand Trunk Road, right up to Peshawar, in a bullock-cart. No one else supported the scheme, and doubtless there was much to be urged against it as a practical proposition. But when I discoursed on it to my father he was sure it was a splendid idea—travelling by railroad was not worth the name! With which observation he proceeded to recount to me his own adventurous wanderings on foot and horseback. Of any chance of discomfort or peril he had not a word to say...

—From Reminiscences

AT night we got into a train at Howarh. Its jolts and jerks made my sleep flow turbidly, a curious farrago composed of drowsiness, wakefulness and dreams. At intervals there were flashing garlands of lights; you heard gongs going and uproars swelling, the names of stations being called out in a multiplicity of voices. All this would then be followed by three successive sounds from a station gong indicating the departure of the train, and in moments everything would vanish, and we would have utter darkness and utter silence, broken only by the restless whirr of the wheels cutting through the star-lit night. Following the rhythm of that sound a curious medley of dreams danced through my head all night. We had to change to another train at Madhupur station at 4 o’clock in the morning. In the pale early morning light I sat at the window and looked out at the rushing world. The train was running ceaselessly. At places one could see in the uneven fields a streak of sand marking the dried-up bed of a stream. Along it were protruding huge, black rocks, like the skeleton of the earth. At places one saw a hillock looking like an enormous head. The hills in the distance were deep blue, as if the blue clouds having descended to the earth for a bout of sport were entrapped for good. They were spreading their wings in an attempt to escape, but they were tied down... There stood a man, a stick in his hand, black like granite, his massess of curly hair tied up in a knot.

There was a pair of buffaloes with the yoke across them. The day’s ploughing had not yet started and they were gazing steadily at the train. At intervals there were spots enclosed in hedges formed by the ghritakumari (a wild creeper). Beautifully clean, each of these enclosures had a brick-built well within. The landscape around had a parched aspect, with thin, long, dried-up blades of mada grass looking like white hairs. The stunted little leafless herbs had become desiccated, black and warped. Here and there you saw a palm standing in the distance, long-legged and small-headed. Now and then you also saw a banyan or a mango tree. I saw the broken plinth of an old roofless hut standing in the middle of a baked field, staring forlornly at its own shadow. Nearby lay the half-burnt trunk of a giant tree.

We arrived at Giridih station at 6 am and here we were done with the train. From this point onwards we would be carried by a man-drawn mail coach. It hardly deserved to be called a coach, this ridiculously small cage planted on four wheels.

First of all we finished our bath and meals at the Dak Bungalow of the town. There was not a blade of grass within view, only a few straggling trees. All round you saw ripples of ochre earth. A sickly pony tied under a tree was looking round wondering what to eat, and for want of any occupation was rubbling itself against the trunk of the tree. To another tree was tied by a long rope a goat. After profound meditation it had decided to nibble noisily at some green vegetable that looked like a herb. We left this place by a hill road that afforded a fairly long view ahead as well as behind. In the sun the road lay, long and sinuous like a serpent, across the parched, empty vast expanse of a field. At one time the coach was being pulled with difficulty up the higher stretches, at another it slid fast down the lower ones. As we passed on, gradually hills came into view. There were sal trees, tall and slender. There were ant-hills. There were felled trunks. At places there were hills covered with thin trees, completely leafless. These starved trees seemed to point their long, shrivelled-up, bony fingers towards the heavens. The hills looked like Bhishma’s bed of arrows.

—From Bichitra Prabandha, 1885

Darjeeling, 1887
HERE we are in Darjeeling. B’s behaviour all the way was above reproach. She did not cry much. She enjoyed herself thoroughly, screaming and shouting and calling out to birds, though birds were nowhere to be seen.

Boarding the ferry-steamer at Saraghat was quite a job: ten o’clock at night, a hundred and one items of luggage, a handful of porters, five women and but one man. Across the river a metre-gauge train waited for us. Each compartment had four berths. We were six. The ladies and the luggage were bundled into the women’s compart-ment—which sounds very simple but took some doing, shouting and running and, all said and done, quite a bustle. Yet N—remarked that I had done nothing, meaning one would have been more of a man had one, in the circumstances, behaved like a person gone wholly mad. But I have passed through so hectic a period: opening and closing trunks without number, shoving trunks under benches and pulling them out again; chasing trunks and parcels, and trunks and parcels chasing me like a curse; losing track of so many, recovering so many, and failing to recover so many, and making gigantic efforts to recover the lost ones—I feel sure that never has such a fate befallen a gentleman of six-and-twenty years. I am now afflicted with baggage-phobia: my teeth chatter at the sight of trunks. When on all sides of me I see only trunks, trunks without end, small, big and medium-sized, heavy and light, of wood and tin, of leather and cloth—one above another, one beside another and one behind another—then do I lose all my normal powers of speech and locomotion, and my vacant looks, my pale face and my abject demeanour make me seem a thorough coward. So, after all, N—must be right.

Anyway, I boarded another compartment and lay down. There were two other Bengalis from Dacca in that compartment. One of them was almost bald. He spoke to me in Bengali with a very queer sort of grammar....

From Siliguri all the way up to Darjeeling there was no end to S’s effusions: ‘How pretty!’ ‘What a lovely sight!’ ‘Isn’t it just wonderful?’ He prodded me every now and then saying, ‘Look, R—’ well, I had to look and see now a tree, now a cloud and now a hill girl with an awfully snub nose, and now perhaps something that I could not even notice because the train had moved on, S—wailing that I had missed a sight.

Gradually it became colder and there were clouds and then a touch of cold and then a fit of sneezing and then all sorts of wraps and rugs and thick woollen socks, feet freezing, hands numbed, faces blue, voices hoarse and immediately after that, Darjeeling.

Once again those trunks and bags and bed-rolls and parcels, item after item of baggage, porter after porter, getting all the bag and baggage from the brake-van, identifying each item, entrusting them to porters, obtaining a clearance from the Sahib-in-charge by producing the receipt, arguing with the Sahib, missing certain items, and making frantic efforts to recover the lost ones—all this took nearly two hours of my time.
—From Chhinnapatra

EARTH has hardly anything to show more fair than the beauty of the landscape alongside the Ganga, south of Santipur. On either bank, rows of peaceful cottages, nestling under shady trees, stretch in an unbroken line—a delight to the eye. Here and there, a ledge of the bank, swathed in emerald grass, rolls down to the lap of the river. Shrubberies, deeply entangled in liana, lean up to the water’s edge to peep, as it were, at their own reflection swaying endlessly on the water. The sun’s rays weave in them a chiaroscuro of light and shade, or impart a golden glint to the tender green of the quivering leaves, atop the bushes. A boat rests, as idle as a painted ship, anchored to the trunk of a tree nearby. Rocking gently in the breeze, it seems to slumber cosily to the ceaseless lullaby of the water lapping against the bank. A meandering foot-path runs down under an arcade of tall trees right up to the edge of the river where the boat stands. Down this foot-path, come the village women with water-pitchers, poised daintily in the crook of their arms. A group of boys romp in the muddy waters close to the bank—swimming like water-sprites, splashing water at one another.

How mysteriously beautiful are the ancient river-ghats—mellowed by the patina of time. One tends to forget that they are man-made; like the trees and shrubs, they are so much a part of the landscape. Through the cracks and fissures in the steps, shaggy peepul trees raise their heads into the sky. Grass grows in between the bricks of the stairs, where the mortar has worn away. Years of rain have covered the stairs with a thick coat of green moss, which blends imperceptibly with the green vegetation all around. Man‘s handiwork has been retouched by Nature’s own brush and pigment. The brashness of the immaculate white-wash has given way to green rusticity, sweet in its tumble-down homeliness. There seems to have developed, between the ghat and village children who come for a bath or to fetch water, a kind of personal relationship. When their grand-parents where as young as they are, it was on these steps that they sported, or slipped down when the moss had just grown in the rain. And on the self-same ghat blind Srinivas, a famous yatra-singer of his day, would sit on an evening and sing a raga, appropriate to the hour, accompanying himself on his fiddle, and slowly a few admirers would gather around him. Gone are the singer and his audience! No one remembers them now.

Even the dilapidated temples on the bank appear to have an aura of mysterious sanctity. They stand deserted, their images gone, no one knows where. Overgrown with banyan trees, these temples look like venerable sages with matted hair and flowing beards. Here and there are hamlets lively with human activity, where fishing boats are anchored in serried ranks. Boats are also seen on the sandy bank—some capsized, some being repaired, their ribs exposed to view. The huts are many and stand in thick clusters, some fenced in by clumsily-built bamboo hedges. A few cattle graze about; a couple of lean and hungry dogs tramp idly along the bank. In front of the kitchen-garden stands a little boy, naked, sucking his thumb and looking at our steamer with wide-eyed wonder. Afloat on pitchers, children of the fishing-folk ply their small nests, catching shrimps. On the bank stands a banyan tree. Floods have washed away a portion of the soil on which it stands laying bare its suckers, thus forming a forlorn cove. An old woman has made this her home, her wordly possessions—a sack for her bed and a few cooking pots and pans. On another side is a char covered with a vast expanse of reed. In autumn, when it is crowned with white thistles and sways with every gust of wind, it looks like a sea rippling with waves of laughter.

For some reason or other, brick-fields on the bank of the Ganga always catch my fancy. They stand by themselves in a stretch of bare waste land, dotted with pits and holes from which the earth has been scooped out. Solitary brick-kilns look like luckless fellows, forsaken by friends. Through rows of trees, one catches a glimpse of the temples—twelve of them—all dedicated to Siva. In front of the temples is a ghat. The shehnai pours forth its sweet-sad music from a canopied platform, set atop the temple-gate. The ferry ghat is located nearby, and consists of steps built with palmyra logs. Further south are the potter’s cottages from whose thatched roofs pumpkins dangle. An old woman is plastering the walls of her hut with a mixture of clay and cow-dung. The courtyard is spotlessly clean—bare except for a gourd creeper snakily climbing a bamboo support and a tulsi plant on a raised dais. He who has not seen the western bank of the Ganga from a boat, lazily adrift on the unruffled bosom of the river, can hardly have any notion of the beauty of the land of Bengal.

—From Bichitra Prabandha

BOMBAY owes its configuration to the sea which holds it in its long beach spread like a half-moon. The sea’s influence is palpable even in its streets and lanes. The sea strikes me as a vast heart which pumps life-blood into the city’s arteries and draws it back again. Bombay squats there, looking eternally outward. This, again, is the sea’s work.

Calcutta’s sole bond of union with nature was the Ganga. It was the only open pathway along which was borne out towards a mysterious distance messages from far inland. It provided the only open window through which one could put one’s head out and see that the world is not confined to human habitations alone. But the Ganga’s natural glory is by now all but gone. Its banks, constantly creeping forward, have put it in a strait-jacket and so tightened the belt around its waist that it has begun to look like a liveried orderly subservient to the human habitations. It is no longer possible to suspect that it had ever any other function than to carry cargo-boats laden with jute bales. Amidst its forest of masts pointing upward like enormous prongs where, one wonders, where, indeed, has vanished in disgrace the trunk of the mythological elephant which bore the Goddess Ganga?

It is one of the chief glories of the sea that though it may serve man, it refuses to wear round its neck any chain of slavery. The jute trade cannot obscure the brilliance of its vast sapphire bosom. This is why the sea by Bombay is ever tireless. While on the one hand, it carries man’s handiwork to all parts of the world, on the other, it relieves his tedium by providing balmy leisure right by the side of a work-mad city.

So it gladdened my heart to see hundreds of men and women in gay attire stitting on Bombay’s beaches. None is able to ignore the call of the sea when, the day’s work done, the afternoon promises leisure. People work and play beside it. Calcutta boasts of its Eden Gardens, but it is like a miser’s daughter, without any warmth in its invitation. It has been made by the State and has its endless rules and restrictions. But the sea has not been made by anyone, and it cannot be hedged round. This is why we have a daily festival of life in Bombay by the sea. Calcutta has no room at all for such uninhibited indulgence in pleasures.

—From Pather Sanchay, 1912

I am a wayfarer, the path is my companion.

It spends the day counting the footsteps of the wide world,

At night it sings under starlight.

On it the chariot wheels of time have left their track;

On the dust lie in reposeful sleep

The weary hopes of ages.

I do not remember when I took to the path.

As I move, and the path turns,

My journey is ever new.

All my hopes are one with the path.

And love is born as I move.

My life is drunk with the ecstasy of movement.

I hunt for the golden stag.

You may smile, my friends,

but I pursue the vision that eludes me.

I run across hills and dales,

I wander through nameless lands,

because I am hunting for the golden stag.

You come and buy in the market

and go back to your homes laden with goods,

but the spell of the homeless winds

has touched me I know not when and where.

I have no care in my heart;

all my belongings I have left far behind me,

I run across hills and dales,

I wander through nameless lands—

because I am hunting for the golden stag.

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